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It wasn't the kind of day you wanted to work. It was steamy hot, no electricity; the noise of the generators added to the discomfort. Ken felt irritable as he opened his office door. Temi, his secretary, was sitting by her desk and gave him one blank disinterested look, not bothering to offer a greeting. Ken shrugged, moved to the inner office; just as he was about to turn the doorknob he stiffened, looked at his secretary, peered through the keyhole, and frowned.
Temi shrugged, "It is Briggs, he has been waiting more than an hour," she replied.
Ken scowled. "What does he want?"
"If he knows, he is not telling me. He almost finished the bottle of whisky," Temi said, fanning herself.
"You gave him whisky in the office?"
"I didn't, he took it. He is caressing it like ..."
"Like a woman?" Ken grinned, his bad mood lifting for a few seconds.
He went into the office.
Briggs was sitting in Ken's chair, his legs across the desk, and a bottle of whisky rested on the table. It was almost empty. Ken came over and yanked him off the chair, sat and put the whisky bottle into the drawer.
"Living it rich are we Ken?" Briggs teased, laughing.
"What do you want?"
Briggs dropped the teasing note in his voice. "Head office have a case they want you on, A.S.A.P."
"I am on a case."
"Which I am taking over," Briggs interrupted, and then gave him a close look shaking his head with some amusement. "When do you read the papers, enh?"
"What is it?"
"One of your kin has been kidnapped again! They don't seem too keen on asking for ransom — looks like it is some kind of vendetta; we got interested only when they threatened to blow up the flow lines from Desert One to Swamp Three. Jack does not like threats, more so since he had just finished negotiating with Chief Richard and he had been promised there will be no problems. He says he might just let Ibrahim and his goons go in there and sort things out. I remembered you came from there and so I suggested to him maybe you could go find out what issues they have and if we can negotiate a solution." Briggs finished, opening the drawer Ken just closed and took another swig of the whisky.
Ken moved to the window, looked out briefly, turned his gaze back to the room and regarded Briggs. "I am not interested."
"Yeah, you are not?" Briggs didn't sound altogether surprised.
"You are not deaf are you?" Ken moved to the window looking out into the street. He needed a drink, a cold drink. Suddenly the picture of his village flashed into his mind and he swore.
Briggs coughed. "That is a yes?"
Ken turned and gave Briggs a calm look. "What do you guys have stashed up in the creeks this time, Briggs?"
"I am the errand boy," Briggs said, shrugging his shoulders. "You don't expect Jack to share confidences with me, do you?"
"Surprising," Ken murmured, "seeing as you supply him ladies every Friday. Heard the last one caused quite a stir as the husband ..."
Briggs raised his hand in protest, laughing. "Seriously Ken, he didn't tell me anything."
Ken asked after a while, "Who are these people?"
"A group we never even knew existed. The chairman of the oil control department has asked that a native son be sent, someone who understands the territory. He almost exactly described you just stopping short of mentioning your name."
"Feel bad?" Ken asked softly.
"Hell No! Were you listening at all? I said your language. I am a Rivers man, they want an Izon man; ladies and gentlemen our best man on the job is Kenawari ..."
Ken stood up and walked to the window again. He looked out at the traffic. The office overlooked a busy street and his senses drew in the noise of the taxis and the motorcyclists who were engaged in a constant war of right of way with the motorists. It was a vibrant scene, one he never seemed to tire of watching. It always made him enthralled and invigorated. He turned away.
He surveyed his companion. They had been friends since he came to work for the company. Briggs was a Rivers man and it showed in his coloring as most people from that area tended to be light skinned, evidence of long years of interracial marriage with European sailors and all who came to Port over the last two centuries. Briggs was even supposed to have Scottish roots. They shared a common understanding of being the second class citizens of the country, never mind the fact that the oil came from under their feet. The company they both worked for was not strictly an oil company, more like a security outfit, but that fact was not advertised — they worked with oil companies, negotiating deals between them and the communities that had the oil.
It was a natural job for Ken, except for the fact that he was also an idealist. He kept most of his dreams to himself but he suspected that the only reason Briggs loved his company was because he could always be sure of a sane analytical take on issues. Most times, it was better to talk to the communities. Each time there was a report of restlessness from any of the communities; Ken would be sent along to just talk to them. Over the years he learned to just allow them to talk. He was always willing to listen. Ken had the patience. He would sit for endless hours with community chiefs, sometimes just listening and nodding sympathetically. He always felt pain each time he came to an area and saw the devastation. What good was it going to serve being angry at the policy makers?
When he first joined the company he found everything strange and he was grateful for Briggs' friendship. He learnt to call him friend because they tended to have the same views. When he was promoted, he had worried that Briggs would be offended but was gratified to learn Briggs had come into the office the very next day with a bottle of local gin, a mischievous grin on his face, and a cutlass. Ken had being shocked, but Briggs had asked him to choose one, as whatever he picked was going to symbolize their relationship. He had laughed and brought out a match to test the efficacy of the local gin. They tested the gin together and had gotten drunk together. A friendship was born.
They were both 'soldiers' of the Niger Delta, not in the militancy that had suddenly taken firm root these days, but in their convictions that they must look for ways to make the rest of the world see the problems facing the people. He used to have long discussions with Briggs telling him that there would come a day when the people won't stay quiet but would take the law into their hands. The first time it happened, the Federal Government sent in troops. It was bloody. That was how the new unit in their company was formed. To see if they could stop such bloodshed, win back the people and renegotiate terms of peaceful existence between the government and the community.
Ken didn't see himself as simply a negotiator, he had trained also in the best schools so he could learn about conflict resolution; it was painful talking and simply listening, but because he dreamed of when his community would join the rest of the country in the present century and grow, he had held on to his hope. He turned from the window and looked at his friend.
Briggs had almost finished the whisky, and smiled at Ken as he stood up.
"I will come around in the evening so you can brief me on your present case, hmm? And hey! You might let me know if there are fine babes, eh; I might decide to marry after all."
Ken smiled back. "No problem, but I will run that request by Sienne, okay?"
Briggs looked horrified and they both laughed out loud.
Later that night, he lay in his bed and stared at the ceiling. Jane had listened quietly to his day's summary, that he had a job and was going to his village as a negotiator.
She had a small smile in her eyes. "That will be some good news for you, right?"
"How can it be good news? I am going to be talking to people with a whole set of ideas, who will be bitter."
When Jane was asleep Ken was still thinking about his new case. He was surprised to find he felt exhilarated. He had not been home for years. Whenever he returned to the country, he had always chosen to stay in Port Harcourt and refused every assignment to go home. He had decided he might as well consider himself dead to his village. Now he was looking forward to going back to a place he left with a vow never to return. He tossed around and abruptly decided to have a drink in the living room, getting up. Jane was still sleeping.
Ken paced the living room wondering why he felt so tensed up. After all he had been to other parts of the Niger Delta before. Yes but this is home, he told himself. Jane came quietly to the living room and observed him. He saw her and went to her, she held him in her arms. Ken smelled her warmth and rubbed the back of her neck. She invited him to sit and fetched a drink and gave it to him. "The children would love an opportunity to know their grandfather," she murmured.
Ken looked away from her probing eyes. "Look, we have gone over this several times; when it is time we will make arrangements to take the children to see their grandfather."
"Okay, tell me about home," Jane invited him.
Ken smiled and then frowned. "There is not much to say, it is simply a village on stilts."
"You sound angry and ashamed of the place."
He had a glass he was about to take in his hand so he glared at her with some anger, shrugged, and then took the drink in one swallow. "I have no idea how long this will take; are you going to be alright?"
"I'm a big girl, haven't you noticed," Jane said, with a smile.
Ken tried to lighten his mood knowing too well it was going to be rough for Jane alone in a strange country with him away. The threat of kidnap was always there and he had quietly decided that he was going to send them back to the States if he came back from this assignment, but suddenly he became very anxious. Only two days before a colleague of theirs had gone missing and the police were still searching for him. Expatriates were staying in minimum numbers to reduce the risk to their families.
He did not want the anxiety of worrying about his family while in the creeks and had made quiet arrangements with Briggs to evacuate Jane and the children the minute he was away. He did not tell Jane because she would have rebelled against the decision. They had both agreed that Briggs would ask Jane to proceed to a workshop that would take her out of the area to a neighboring country for a while. He suddenly held her close to him. She responded to his need as they headed back to the bedroom.
Ken came down from the boat, his throat dry and fear slithered down his spine. The horizon stretched desolately away, no soul in sight. The smell was the first to get to him and his stomach turned — he leaned over retching; nothing came out. Then the cough; dry, rasping and he felt totally hopeless. From a distance a man approached him. He stared for a while faintly trying to determine who the figure was then in shock, grimaced as he recognized it was his father. He had not seen him for fifteen years. His father had aged terribly, the man looked almost skeletal. Father and son stared at each other with disinterest.
Ken wondered if his father had ever missed him, but then he shrugged the thought quickly off. He looked around trying to hide his disgust at this forsaken land. He had not been home in fifteen years. The constant fights now seemed ridiculous just like the man in front of him.
There were no formal greetings or expressions of pleasure at seeing each other; they simply went to the business at hand.
"You are the negotiator?" his father asked.
"I was the only one stupid enough to accept," Ken replied.
The father pointed one skeletal finger in the general direction of the longhouse. "I am the welcoming party."
"Could have done worse, I imagine. The idiots must have thought you had something to offer."
The old man moved off with surprising agility, quickly and silently.
Ken was caught unawares by the movement. "What's the rush?" he panted, as he noticed with some shame that he was out of shape trying to keep up with the fast pace.
His father gave him one contemptuous look, but said nothing.
Ken felt like he had just been slapped and he grew angry that he still could be bothered by the opinions of his father. Bugger him, he angrily thought. Minutes later they were in the longhouse. It was the general meeting place of the village.
Smells, shouts, and smoke from many lit pipes assailed him as he stepped in.
Someone clamped a clammy hand on his shoulder; he turned to check who it was, just as he heard another yell greetings into his ear. The clammy hand was still on him, the fellow was drunk; he turned slowly, straight into the eyes of Torjor. He recognized him instantly. His stomach tightened in knots. The sense of disgust he always felt for Torjor came to the fore again.
His father watched the assault with a sardonic grin flitting across his emaciated face. He wandered to a seat at the far end of the longhouse, seeming to lose all interest in Ken's presence.
"I thought they said they were sending us a man," Torjor mocked.
Ken gave him a cool stare: the dead brown eyes, the scarred face from many knife fights, and then pointedly turned away. "I am the negotiator," he said, gratified that his voice was cool.
Hours later, exhausted and weary, he stepped outside from the dim longhouse for some fresh air. Negotiating peace with angry, hungry people was not going to be easy. Ken knew that, because he understood the hunger, he understood the underlying bitterness that had driven people like Torjor to this kind of business. He had tried to be patient and allowed them to just talk, not offering anything, nor did he condemn. It was they who called for the meeting to adjourn till the next morning. No one offered him food or a place to rest. It was assumed that since he came from the village, he would be taken care of by his own family; after all, they had sent his father to welcome him. However his father had disappeared long before the meeting ended.
He was not expecting hospitality from his father. He just assumed he could sleep in the longhouse. The longhouse was usually a communal building meant for everyone's use. Fireflies made little light points in the night. In the far distance, a voice was raised in song. There were the occasional calling sounds of a night bird. Ken assimilated all the sounds sitting out in the longhouse.
He was not sure if his father expected him. It was not done, though. When you have grown a beard and can make a woman pregnant, it is a disgrace to be seen in your father's house. He swatted at the insects and closed his eyes. The boy who sneaked up to him, must have thought he was asleep as the rascal slid close to him, feeling his pocket, trying to slip his watch. He suppressed a chuckle and allowed a feigned snore to escape as he waited for the right moment to capture the thief. He felt sorry and angry at the same time. He suddenly held the boy's hand in a vice grip.
"A Izon," Ken growled.
The boy froze and straightened trying to free his hand; he was not frightened but embarrassed.
Ken opened his eyes and looked at the boy. "Your name?" he barked, brooking no nonsense.
"Pere," the boy calmly replied.
Ken released the hand and gave the boy a long survey. "You could be dead in two minutes," he said.
"And you in less," an angry female voice answered out of the shadows.
He saw the woman and his mouth went dry but he said nothing. He instantly recognized her. He still remembered her name and murmured it to himself, "Ebijor." It was a name he had lived with all the time he had been away. It was crazy, because he had thought of her, wondered if she had remained in the village or had fled like himself.
But all speculation was now cleared, as the still-beautiful lady stood angrily in front of him. His face was calm, slightly questioning, as he watched her angry face but his voice was heavy with sarcasm. "Still playing games I see Ebijor?"
She ignored him and delivered a loud slap to the boy, who took it with one sharp cry, tears coming to his eyes. The boy stared at both of them, and turned away.
Ebijor sighed, "Hope you did not lose anything to him?"
"That is not much then," Ebijor said, and turned to go.
Ken grasped her hand.
Ebijor stiffened. "Careful, I bite," she snapped.
"The practicing robber is your son?"
Ebijor turned away. "I doubt you are interested in whose son the boy is; society decided who he would be."
"You are the village sociologist as well? Very wise indeed," Ken mocked.
Excerpted from "Blood Contract"
Copyright © 2018 Biola Olatunde.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
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